Overcoming hurdles to success

Jansen’s book honours his mother’s influence, writes Devon Koen.

Not afraid to speak his mind about anything from politics to everyday life, former University of the Free State vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen  had his audience in stitches when he launched his latest literary work, Song for Sarah: Lessons from my mother.

Speaking at the Boardwalk Convention Centre on Friday (11/08/17), Jansen did not hold back on political commentary.

Referring to the vote of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma, he said: “It is easy to be dismayed in this country when [members of parliament] vote for a corrupt president again.”

Jansen also took a swipe at Deputy Higher Education Minister Mduduzi Manana, who is embroiled in a court case after allegedly assaulting a woman outside a popular Johannesburg nightspot.

Professor Jonathan Jansen and his sister Naomi launched their book ‘Song for Sarah’ at the Boardwalk Picture: Eugene Coetzee

“I get despondent when a guy beats down a woman and this same guy sits in parliament and [he] is referred to as an honourable member . . . honourable se gat,” he said to the audience’s clear delight.

Not shying away from controversy, Jansen said government officials should stop using apartheid or the regime’s former leader’s utterances to undermine the intelligence of schoolchildren.

“There is nothing wrong with our children but the fact that the bar has been set so low,” he said in reference to the likelihood of the Department of Basic Education lowering the pass rate for maths and science.

“Don’t tell me high standards are a white thing, it’s a human thing.

“If you tell children they can achieve, then they will achieve.”

A self-professed “average school pupil”, Jansen said his mother had helped to mould him and had given him the motivation to do all he could to better himself.

Speaking about his book, Song for Sarah: Lessons from my mother, which he co-authored with his sister Naomi, Jansen said the book was not only a way of reflecting on his own mother “but all mothers who raise children under difficult and trying circumstances”.

Compassionately comparing his mother Sarah, a nurse at Princess Alice Orthopaedic Hospital in Cape Town, to a piece of fabric, Jansen said she had created a sense of wholeness in their family while his father was juggling different jobs as he and his siblings were growing up.

“Fabric is an invisible force holding threads together . . . to give an impression of wholeness . . . that’s my mother,” he said.

Jansen, who holds several qualifications including a master’s degree from Cornell University and a doctor’s degree from Stanford University, both in the United States, said there were too many children who grew up not being part of a community and not being cared for.

“It drives me nuts when schools are disrupted. No child is OK until everyone’s child is OK,” he said.

Jansen’s book honours his mother’s influence.

He said his mother had wanted him and his siblings to be around children “who would lift us up”.

“Your children become who their environment around them is,” he said.

Song for Sarah: Lessons from my mother is a collection of short stories dedicated to his mother and which shine light on the Jansen children’s upbringing.

Jansen was born in Cape Town and raised in Montagu in the Western Cape. He completed a bachelor of science degree at the University of the Western Cape and obtained a teaching qualification through Unisa.

The former biology teacher was the dean of education at the University of Pretoria from 2001 to 2007 and was a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University in 2007 and 2008 before taking up the position of vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State, where he was the first black person to hold such a position.

Jansen has been awarded honorary doctorates in education from Edinburgh University and Cleveland State University and recently returned from a 10-month tenure at Stanford.

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